It would be easy enough to criticize this novel on a number of fronts: the forgettable and not very believable plots, the over-attention to minute details of San Francisco streets and places, the almost parodic use of the Hammett style. But these are inconsequential when held up against the sheer pleasure of reading a Sam Spade novel. Spade skirts the law and has no time for its representatives, but holds his own ethical code inviolate, even when doing so puts himself at risk. He is also a kind of renaissance man, instantly ‘getting’ literary references from Shakespeare to Fitzgerald.
In the introductory case in this novel Spade has been hired to find an absent husband - a man who simply disappeared one day, leaving behind a successful business and a happy family life. When Spade finds him, the man tells him that he had been nearly killed by a falling beam, and that the randomness of it brought him to the realization that if life is driven by random forces then he himself might as well live his life randomly. But in his report on the incident Spade notes that once the man adjusted to having survived a falling beam, he ‘adjusted right back’ to his old life, just in a different city and a different wife and a different family. This is an implied, though unstated, reference to Eliot’s observation that ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’ - and is an echo of the existentialist thought so prevalent in the 1920s in the aftermath of a devastating war that removed all possibility of belief in a stable world and a stable place for ourselves in it. Spade’s ability to see this and to express it so compactly is one of the great appeals of the Spade character. Gores does a fine job here.
There are similar tidbits throughout the novel, but the overall arc of the storyline is a bit muddled. The novel is really three interlinked novellas, linked only by the characters and by a shadowy criminal master mind who nearly, but not quite, succeeds in stealing a large quantity of gold in the first story and who returns later in a variety of disguises (sometimes with little apparent reason) to get his hands on the gold, and to make Spade’s life a misery for having thwarted him in the first place. The three stories take place at four-year intervals through the 1920s, ending at the precise moment when The Maltese Falcon begins. We are given a plausible back-story for the Spade-Archer relationship, we learn why the secretary Effie Perrine is so loyal to Spade, we meet Sid Wise, the attorney that Spade consults occasionally, and we’re given plenty of background on Spade himself. We also find out that Spade has a nearly photographic memory for every street corner in his adopted San Francisco, and that he is equally at ease with street thugs, politicians, and bankers. In short, there’s nothing here that disturbs our image of the Sam Spade played by Humphrey Bogart.